PM Gilani responds after latest US airstrike

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s prime minister struck a moderate tone Monday amid criticism of the U.S. for carrying out its first drone strike in the country since parliament demanded that Washington end the attacks two weeks ago.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s comments could indicate the government does not want the drone issue to torpedo attempts to patch up ties with the U.S.

The strikes have complicated U.S. attempts to get Pakistan to reopen supply lines for NATO troops in Afghanistan that were closed in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at the Salala camp.

For Pakistan, reconciliation could mean the freeing up of over $1 billion in U.S. military aid that has been frozen.

Pakistan’s parliament approved new guidelines for the country’s relationship with the U.S. in mid-April. Washington had hoped that parliament’s decision could pave the way to reopen the supply lines. But the legislature’s demand that drone strikes end threw a wrench in the process because U.S. officials have indicated they have no intention of stopping the covert CIA program.

When asked about the most recent strike, which killed three suspected Islamist militants Sunday, Gilani pointed out that the resolution passed by parliament also stipulated that foreign fighters must be expelled from the country and Pakistani soil should not be used to attack other countries.

“So, when we plan a strategy (with the U.S.), all these aspects would be discussed,” said Gilani.

The drone issue is complicated by the fact that some elements of the Pakistani government, including the military, have helped the U.S. carry out strikes in the past. That cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated, but many analysts believe some in the government still support the program at some level.

Even those Pakistani officials believed to support the attacks often protest them in public because they are so unpopular in the country. Many Pakistanis believe they most kill civilians, an allegation disputed by the U.S. and independent research.

The latest attack Sunday killed three suspected militants sheltering in an abandoned school in the North Waziristan tribal area along the Afghan border, said Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement early Monday saying the strikes “are in total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations.”

“The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that drone attacks are violative of its territorial integrity and sovereignty,” it said.

It’s not the first time the U.S. has ignored Pakistan’s parliament, which has called since 2008 for the drone strikes to end.

A Pakistani intelligence official said the most recent strike seemed to be a message from the U.S.

“It’s a message that things are going to continue as usual irrespective of what we say,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

President Barack Obama significantly ramped up strikes in Pakistan when he took office in 2009, and while the U.S. has said little publicly about the attacks, American officials have argued in private that they are critical to targeting Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who threaten the West.

Drones are not the only issue complicating Pakistan’s decision to reopen the NATO supply lines.

The country’s parliament has also demanded that the U.S. provide an “unconditional apology” for the deaths of the Pakistani troops in November. The U.S. has expressed regret, but has declined to apologize — a decision that appears to be driven by domestic political considerations. The U.S. has said its troops fired in self-defense — a claim disputed by Pakistan — and the White House could be concerned about Republican criticism if it apologizes. (AP)